DENVER - For the first time in three decades,
critics of the Endangered Species Act are building momentum to
rewrite the law implemented to save America's threatened flora
and fauna, from the star cactus to the grizzly bear.
Weakening the law has been a priority for Republican
Western governors, and a second Bush term provides critics of
the act a prime opportunity to push the U.S. Congress for
changes that would help open up vast stretches of wilderness
Rep. Richard Pombo of California, chairman of the House of
Representatives natural resources committee, is expected to
introduce legislation this session to revamp the law. Activists
on both sides of the issue say there is little chance of truly
gutting the act given its mission of saving plants and animals,
but environmentalists fear it could become significantly
When the 30-year-old act became law, most Americans saw it
as a way to save great species -- charismatic megafauna such as
the bald eagle or the grizzly bear. Currently 518 U.S. species
are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
But business leaders say it imposes rules and protections
that cost them money and halt commerce.
"I think that the chances for improving and modernizing the
act are very high in this Congress," said Jim Sims of The
Partnership for the West, a business group that advocates
changing the act.
Problems arise for business in areas that are habitat to a
species listed as endangered under the act. Logging, oil and
gas drilling are halted and roads cannot be built; recreational
activity can be curtailed.
For example, as a result of the act's restrictions, a
California school district faced a $1 million costly delay in
building a school, and farmers in the Klamath Basin in Oregon
lost up to $54 million because of restrictions on activities,
according to a study conducted for the Property and Environment
Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.
The most controversial proposal is change the law so it
requires the use of "best science" rather than "best available
science" to determine if a species is endangered. If the
current research weren't conclusive, then more studies would
have to be done, which would likely delay the listing of a
"It should be a duty on the part of the agency to fill in the
gaps and do some additional studies if it doesn't have good
substantial information," said M. Reed Hopper, an attorney with
The Pacific Legal Foundation which represents the rights of
FERRY SHRIMP, ALLIGATORS AND BEARS
Right now any citizen can petition the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to list a plant or animal species. If
available science shows the species is in trouble, the service
will begin the steps to have it listed.
Critics say that means a species is listed without much
documentation. An application to list the ferry shrimp which
lives in vernal pools in the central valley of California was
not much more than a one-page letter, Hopper said.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, chairman of the Western
Governors' Association, said recently that the Endangered
Species Act has been a failure at its mission of bringing back
species and must be changed.
"More than 1,000 species have been listed under the act,
but less than 1 percent has been successfully recovered,' Owens
told a business group.
But there have been success stories. The grizzly bear is
doing well and other species are recovering like the alligator,
the brown pelican and the gray wolf in the Rocky Mountains.
Jeff Eisenberg, director of federal lands for the National
Cattlemen's Beef Association -- which contends with the act's
restrictions on grazing lands -- said species tend to stay on
the list indefinitely. "All kinds of species are on there
forever. There's no organized effort to get them off."
Another proposed change is to require that requests to
conduct certain activities on private land affected by the act
be answered within a certain time.
But Ralph Morgenweck, regional director of the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service, argues that rules are strict because a
species is not listed until it is at death's door. "The species
are in bad shape. They didn't get that way overnight and it
will not go in the other direction overnight," he said.
Environmentalists complain that some species such as the
greater sage grouse should be listed but fail to make it
because industries such as oil and gas lobby against it, a
claim denied by federal regulators.
© Copyright 2005 Reuters Ltd